“Some five years ago I received a letter from the late Lord Bracken (whom I had then not met) saying some friends of his were planning to build a new distillery in the Highlands and hoping that I might be available for consultation was he was anxious to get them ‘the best advice’. Such politeness would have been disarming even if I had not been concerned most of my life for the welfare of the Highlands, and, in this particular matter of malt whisky, had begun to wonder as no new pot still had been built in the Highlands this century, if the existing plant could go on producing indefinitely and in sufficient quantity and quality the traditional Scotch to meet an ever rising demand; so I was pleased to assure Lord Bracken that I should be glad to advise in any way I could.”¹
So begins the tale of Neil Gunn’s involvement in the founding of Tormore, as told in his wide ranging essay on whisky in The New Saltire. More than simply saying how he got involved, it gives a wonderful glimpse of how Bracken worked. He used his network of acquaintances and own knowledge to identify someone who could help, someone not necessarily not necessarily an obvious candidate but someone he might like to work with. The obvious, businesslike, way to find a distillery site would have been to leave it to the people in the trade, the staff of Seager & Evans, for example – but where’s the fun in that? Meeting a man of letters, tramping the countryside and getting physically involved in the task is much more fun. Once he decided on who he wanted the approach was quite subtle, with just about the right amount of flattery and the fiction of ‘a group of friends’. If he had said ‘I am working for an American corporation, who want to open a new distillery’ I don’t think Gunn would have been so receptive. Instead the ‘group of friends’ were mysterious enough to pique his interest, especially as he heard a rumour that a publisher might be behind the venture – which, of course pleased him mightily. Also Bracken gave the impression of knowing his man. As Gunn revealed in a letter to a friend:
“My part-time job? Don’t know yet, but when I was writing to you I got a letter from a noble lord in your city asking me to to do some advising on whisky making!It wouldn’t take up much time and wouldn’t make use of my name – so he might even know something of my peculiarities.”²
So they set off together with the purpose of helping the economic development of the region, even if the details of their trip were a little quixotic. “Gunn and Bracken Tour the Highlands” sounds like one of those travelogues you sometimes see on BBC4 where two people are thrown together for a quest and amuse us by gossiping, bitching, and providing breadcrumbs of information. It would have and the added glamour of Bracken’s chauffeur driven Rolls Royce, the quiet 1950s roads and the grandeur of the scenery. I would have watched it!
“Then Lord Bracken appeared in person, and though I believed there was no kind of hunting on moor and mountain I hadn’t taken part in, I was undeceived as we set off for the Moray country to hunt solitary and remote burns and taste their quality.
Lovely as the day was, with warmth in the air and an inviting softness in the burn water, I did not depart from my intention to be uncompromising in my advice, and accordingly proceeded with the arrangement to test on the spot the effect of the water on a modicum of old malt whisky. The Moray country has always had for me what I can only describe as a beneficent quality, and on this day it clearly hd the same effect on my distinguished companion, who surprised me by his knowledge of the countryside and its people and then asking me if I knew Edenkillie Church. That day its interior was as attractive as its exterior in its surroundings of peace, and as we came out the first gravestone told me of one who had died at the age of eighty six years, and many others who hd also gone to rest in time’s maturity. Surely here was a place where the water of life had always run true.
Yet on another day we crossed the watershed and came down into the strath of Spey, the strath that with its tributaries holds about half of the Highland stills and more than half of their fables, for indeed it is difficult to to isolate fact from fable as we go back into the past of this storied region, particularly over the stretch of time covered by the ‘smuggling days’…
we found at last a burn, which ran from the Cromdale Hills into the Spey, in quantity enough and in taste admirable. It had its source in a small loch whose Gaelic name meant the loch of gold, and as an extra wonder, it had no distillery on its banks. Its name was Tormore, in the county of Moray.”¹
What a romantic way to find the site for a distillery! What a great day out! How different business was in those days!
It is not, of course, the full story. There was also a scientist who took samples and sent them back to the lab for analysis, and the support of the company who would have to take care of all the boring administrative details such as land purchase making sure the site was really suitable and planning permission. But let us forget that, put it aside. As Neil Gunn noted whisky in this region is full of fables so let us celebrate this one about the siting of the stills and the origin of a new distillery.
¹ Gunn, Neil M. An affair of whisky. New Saltire. number 6, December 1962. p 6-11
² Letter to J.B. Pick in Gunn, Neil M., and J. B. Pick. Selected Letters. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1987.
N.B. the photo is of the cairn on the Creagan a’ Chaise ridge of the Cromdale Hills. It was taken from https://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/cairngorms/creagan-a-chaise.shtml